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National Histories, National Fictions: Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor

From: ELH
Volume 65, Number 4, Winter 1998
pp. 1017-1038 | 10.1353/elh.1998.0032

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ELH 65.4 (1998) 1017-1038

At the end of chapter five of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Stephen Dedalus announces in his diary his desire to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." One might justifiably ask how that is possible, hyperbolic rhetoric aside, particularly at Stephen's (and Joyce's) historical moment, when other Irish authors were embracing a version of literary nationalism that Joyce explicitly rejected. The Celtic Revival attempted to produce a new Irish culture in the absence of compelling political cohesion after the death of Parnell. Yet if one rejects the Celtic revival -- and novelists were not well represented in that movement -- what kinds of models might a young author find for the ambition that links literary achievement to national reinvigoration? One possible answer to that question is suggested by a moment frequently overlooked earlier in chapter five.

There is general agreement that chapter five is qualitatively different from the rest of A Portrait. Here Stephen is moodier and more alienated than we have seen before, more as he appears in Ulysses. He is virtually as mature in his consciousness (although less capable of self-irony) as Joyce ever presents him. More importantly, the chapter places Stephen within the most fully defined social world of the novel, where he comes face to face, in the persons of McCann and Davin, with what are -- to him -- vulgar yet haunting versions of political activism and Irish nationalism. In the course of the chapter comes a curious moment. Stephen searches for Cranly at the National Library, and they meet a Dublin eccentric, a man called the Captain. He is described as "dwarfish" and simian, with a "blackish monkey-puckered face" (P, 247). More importantly, he is an inveterate reader of Walter Scott, whose name is emphatically repeated in a brief dialogue with Cranly: "The captain has only one love: sir Walter Scott." "I love old Scott," he replies, "I think he writes something lovely. There is no writer can touch sir Walter Scott" (P, 247). The Captain then disappears from the library, another pseudo-epiphanic member of the passing show of Dublin, much like the mad nun and the doll-faced consumptive earlier in the chapter, with one important exception. The moment for Stephen is underlined by a visionary experience, which lasts for two paragraphs, and is called up by a rumor of the Captain's incestuous birth, which Stephen mysteriously associates with Davin. These visionary flights have typified Stephen's consciousness throughout A Portrait, but they have hitherto been reserved for seminal moments in Stephen's psychic growth, apportioned roughly one per chapter -- the fever dream of Parnell's death in chapter one, the students carving the word "Foetus" in chapter two, the nightmare vision of hellish creatures in chapter three, and the vision of the bird girl at the climax of chapter four.

Why does Joyce grant this moment value comparable to that of earlier scenes, charged as they are with much more obvious value for Stephen's emerging consciousness? We may begin to answer that question by examining one aspect of this italicized scene, the captain's fondness for Walter Scott, and particularly the novel he seems to be reading (according to a question posed by Dixon), The Bride of Lammermoor. Joyce alludes to Scott in Dubliners, where the author appears in contexts freighted with perversion and schoolboy Romanticism. In "An Encounter" the man in the park alludes to Scott as a conversational gambit, finding a common ground in the schoolboy's literary knowledge while leading around to disturbingly sexualized subjects. In Joyce's "Araby" Scott's The Abbot serves to the knowledgeable reader who recognizes the title as a mirror for the narrator's misplaced Romanticism, for it juxtaposes the idealization of a secular Mary, Mary Queen of Scots, to the lay mariolatry of the narrator's crush on Mangan's sister. Such contextually ironic references to Scott have led R. B. Kershner, for one, to see Scott as Joyce's particular bête noire, a liking for whose works is a sign of decadence among his early characters. Yet The Bride of Lammermoor...


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